1941: The Coast Guard and the Greenland Operations

GreenlandDuring 1940 the United States had been looking to the defense of Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. An exchange of Atlantic and Caribbean bases for destroyers was being negotiated with the British. Canada and Britain were consolidating their position in the North Atlantic by stationing troops in Iceland and were contemplating countering reported German activities in Greenland. A charting and aerial survey flight of the west coast of Greenland was completed and several possible sites for airfields were determined but there was no follow up on the part of the War Department. American diplomacy went through a good many convolutions during this period. The official American position, simply stated, rested on nonintervention but as the War in Europe progressed the United States became more and more involved.

On 9 April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark. Totally unprepared for war the Danes capitulated on the same day. This precipitated an immediate response as Denmark exercised sovereignty over Greenland and the U.S. did not want to see a German presence in the western hemisphere. In addition, located at the small village of Ivigtut, Greenland was the only known sizeable deposit of cryolite, a soft translucent mineral that looks like quartz, which when in a molten state and subjected to an electric charge, was used to extract metallic aluminum from bauxite ore. This was the standard means of producing industrial aluminum and was vital to the American aircraft industry. The State Department adopted the position that the Danish Ambassador, Dr. Henrik de Kauffmann, was still the legitimate representative of his country and agreed to work with the Greenland authorities to protect the cryolite mine.

On May 20, 1940, the USCG Cutter Comanche transported James K. Penfield, the first American Consul to Greenland, and a new American consulate was established at Godthaab. Over the next three weeks the Coast Guard Cutters Campbell, Duane, and Cayuga worked in the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay, taking soundings and making preliminary charts of the coast line. The source of the extant charts of Greenland was located in German occupied Copenhagen. The Duane carried a Curtiss SOC-4 seaplane which augmented this operation and additionally identified possible locations for the construction of airfields. Two pilots, LT Shields USCG, Captain Lacy US Army Air Corps, and Coast Guard Aviation Radioman Merada were the aircraft crew. The cutter Northland put a 3-inch gun ashore at Ivigtut and the Campbell delivered assorted small arms. Fourteen Coast Guard personnel were recruited from within the Coast Guard, accepted discharges, but retained their ratings, and formed the nucleus of an armed guard at the mine. This became the model used to form the American Volunteer Group, Flying Tigers, for operation in China prior to the US entry into WWII.    

American bases were under construction in Newfoundland, American troops were present and strategic planning was changing to include the defense of Iceland and Greenland. A joint meeting of the State Department, War Department, and Navy department took place on 6 February1941. It was agreed that it would be desirable to have the defense of Greenland under U.S. control.  The conference further recognized that efforts by the Germans to obtain weather data from Greenland were to be expected. During the late summer of 1940 the British had dismantled several weather stations under German control in northeastern Greenland and intercepted a vessel off the coast of Greenland with fifty Germans, some of them meteorologists, on board. In March a survey expedition made up of American diplomats, military commanders and a representative of the Royal Canadian Air Force departed Boston on the Coast Guard Cutter Cayuga to locate sites for airfields, weather stations and other military installations. Narsarssuak was reported to be the most promising. On 9 April 1941 an agreement signed by Secretary of State Hull and Hendrik Kauffmann, the Danish Minister to Washington, established an American protectorate over Greenland for the duration of the war.

As soon as the negotiations with the Danish Minister were sufficiently advanced, President Roosevelt authorized the War Department to

Bluie West

Bluie West 1 Narsarsuaq Greenland

go ahead with preparations for building the airfields. During the following months various details were worked out. The Greenland force consisted of the Army transport USS Manargo, the troopship Chateau Thierry, the 21st Engineers battalion, a composite battery of the 62nd Coast artillery (AA), plus the necessary service troops. Colonel Benjamin Giles, Army Air Corps was in command. The Greenland force proceeded to Narsarssuak and construction on the major U.S. Army and Navy airbase, Bluie West I, began in July 1941. The infrastructure was erected, the grading was completed and the first runway was ready for use in February 1942. This airfield was one of the first to make use of steel matting in runway construction, an important engineering development that contributed greatly to winning the war, especially in the Pacific. Construction began on the airfield at Bluie West 8 at Sondre Stromfjord in October and this airfield was also completed in February 1942. The first Bulk shipment of aviation fuel arrived in June.

The Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Harold Stark directed naval operations in the Greenland area be expanded to serve two purposes. The first purpose was to support the Army in establishing Greenland airdrome facilities for use in ferrying aircraft to England. This generated convoy escort responsibilities. The second purpose was to defend Greenland and specifically to prevent German operations in Northeast Greenland. This would be a coordinated multi-tasked operation in a harsh environment and the U.S. Coast Guard with its long experience conducting the Bering Sea Patrol, the International Ice Patrol and experience in Greenland waters was the logical choice to head up the operation. In the early summer of 1941 the American naval forces operating in Greenland waters were officially organized. The patrol consisted of two sections; the Northeast Patrol with CDR Edward “Iceberg” Smith in command consisted of the cutters Northland, North Star, and the USS Bear, that had served many years on the Bering Sea Patrol and now had a modernized superstructure. The South Patrol with LCDR Harold Belcher was composed of the cutters Modoc, Comanche, Raritan, and the Navy auxiliary Bowdin. In October the two commands were consolidated under CDR Smith as the Greenland Patrol, designated Task Force 24.8, and placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

From Cape Farewell up the east coast of Greenland to the Scorseby Sound area where previous German weather station activity had taken place, was a distance of over 600 miles with only one settlement, the village of Ammassalik, in between. There was no habitation between Scorseby Sound and the northern tip of Greenland 1000 miles away.  There were, however numerous fjords and other locations along the entire coast where German weather stations could be set up.  The Northland the North Star and the Bear, the nucleus of the initial northeast patrol, each carried a Grumman J2F-4 amphibian. Although cumbersome to put in and take out of the water they proved to be invaluable. These aircraft were sent on countless long search missions over the fjords and mountains looking for enemy activity. They greatly increased the cutter’s operating and search capabilities.

When the new cutters such as the Storis and Wind Class icebreakers arrived they continued to utilize on board aircraft. 

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US Coast Guard Cutter Northland with J2F-4 on board

War with Germany was declared December 11, 1941 and Smith, who had been promoted to Captain, found himself extremely short of aircraft and escort vessels to convoy the intensive increase in Greenland shipping and to supply the outposts and the Army weather stations on the Greenland coast. Navy Patrol Squadron 93 was assigned to the Naval Air Station Argentia Newfoundland in May of 1942 to combat the German submarines and provide convoy cover. Six aircraft were based at Argentia and six were based in Greenland; three at Bluie West 1 and three at Bluie West 8. The aircraft based in Greenland were also used by Task Force 24.8 for search, rescue and supply purposes. Smith located ten 120 foot fishing trawlers in Boston, and recognizing their potential for the Greenland operation, requested assistance in obtaining them from the Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Russell R. Waesche. They were very capable navigating the narrow fjords, dense fields of icebergs and ice cake, and their maneuverability could not be equaled by larger ships. They served well until a new generation of ships especially designed for the Greenland operation arrived in mid 1943.

[fusion_tagline_box backgroundcolor=”#eaeaea” shadow=”no” shadowopacity=”0.7″ border=”1″ bordercolor=”#e0e0e0″ highlightposition=”left” content_alignment=”left” link=”” button=”” linktarget=”_self” modal=”” button_size=”” button_type=”” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”left” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_offset=””] Bluie was a code naming system. There were a total of 14 geographical locations that were given these code names. Bluie West 1 (BW-1) to Bluie West 9 (BW-9) on the west side of Greenland; Bluie East 1 (BE-1) to Bluie East 5 (BE-5) on the east side. The east side was in sequence from south to north. The west side was mixed.[/fusion_tagline_box]

Smith was also largely responsible for the creation of the Greenland Sledge Patrol, a contingent of Eskimos, Danish and Norwegian hunters, recruited by the Greenland government, supported by the Coast Guard cutters and supplied by the Army. They patrolled the northeastern coastal regions on dog sleds looking for German weather and radio installations. The Northland, with two Danish-speaking interpreters on board, became the nerve center for the Sledge Patrol’s operations. The patrol had scarcely begun operations when it proved its worth by assisting in the capture of the trawler Buskoe on 12 September, as that vessel, a small German-controlled Norwegian ship, was attempting to establish a radio and weather station in the Mackenzie Bay area. The patrol continued to be effective in this type of operation throughout the war. Although not one of the primary reasons for establishment, the patrol proved to be valuable for rescue operations as well.

From the beginning all European invasion plans called for the movement of large numbers of U.S. military aircraft to the British Isles. This began in late 1940 when the first Lockheed Hudson was ferried to Ireland through Gander and in March 1941 B-17s and B-24s commenced flying from Gander to Prestwick, Scotland. These aircraft had long cruising ranges and were instrument equipped for flying in bad weather. For fighter aircraft with more restrictive cruising ranges to make it to England, a northern flight route consisting of a series of legs was required. The distance concept between landing fields on the northern route was that a P-38 Lightning, chosen at that time to be the dominant fighter aircraft in Europe, need not fly more than 850 miles to advance to the next base. This left the aircraft with enough fuel to return to the departure base if the destination weather went down. This was part of a Top-Secret operation and was code named Operation Bolero.

Norwegian SeaIn January of 1942 the Air Corps Ferry Command contracted to establish radio range beacons and weather communication facilities along the northern ferry route from the United States to Prestwick, Scotland. Construction began and on June 25, 1942 the first fighter group left Goose Bay, Labrador for Prestwick Scotland completing the trip on 9 July.  Because of

minimal navigation equipment the P-38s flew in groups of three to five aircraft with a B-17 as a mother ship to do the navigating. The remaining men and equipment would make the trip aboard C-47 transports or by ship. Weather along the northern route was generally poor and despite prodigious efforts there remained gaps in the communications, navigation, and support facilities and weather reporting was sometime faulty. The weather forecast reliability was improved by stationing Coast Guard cutters along the route of flight that conducted and transmitted weather observations. An auxiliary airfield Bluie East 2 was established on the east coast of Greenland and two additional airfields were constructed in Iceland. The Army expected possible aircraft losses on the northern route to be over 15%. When compared to the losses being inflicted by German U-Boats on North Atlantic convoys at the time this was considered acceptable. Losses did occur but were just under 5%.

On 15 July eight aircraft, six Lockheed P-38s and two B-17s departed Bluie West 8 for Iceland after several days delay. They left with out of date communications codes (codes changed daily) and ran into blizzard conditions. They became lost –were unable to communicate – began icing up and the six P-38s were running out of gas. They reversed course and just barely got back to the east coast of Greenland where all eight crash landed on the icecap. The AAF contacted the Coast Guard and a PBY and crew was made available for a search. The downed aircraft were located near Bluie East 2. The Coast Guard cutter Northland happened to be there. Contact was made and the PBY, piloted by Lt. George Atterberry USN, led a dog sled team to the crash site. All 25 crewmen were rescued and transported to the Northland, were picked up by the PBY and returned to BW 1.

LT. John Pritchard and ENS Dick Fuller of the Northland lead a rescue party that reached the crew of a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber that had been stranded on the ice cap for 13 days and brought them safely back to the ship. Searches and rescues would continue throughout the year. When not needed by the Coast Guard cutters the assigned J2Fs flew out of BW 1 or BW 8. Seaplane ramps were constructed at BW 1 and at Ivigtut.

Although good relations existed between the Coast Guard and Army Air Force personnel at the local level, with Coast Guard liaison officers assigned to the bases, the Army Air Force Command  was adverse to requesting search and rescue assistance from the Coast Guard unless circumstances forced them to do so. Such was the case in early November 1942. A C53 transport went down somewhere on the east coast of Greenland. It was never found. Several in transit B-17s were sent to look for it. One of the B-17s, PN9E, experienced a white out and flew into the ice cap near Comanche Bay. The ice cap in this area had multiple crevices. The base commander at BW 8 commandeered a TWA C-54 and located the PN9E. Even though the Northland was in the area the Army decided to do the rescue themselves and set up at BE 2 approximately 80 miles north of the crash site. An attempt was made to equip an Army aircraft with skis but it did not work. The base then sent its two motorized sleds to the downed B-17. One sled was lost in a crevass.

On November 28 the Coast Guard entered the operation. The Northland launched LT John Pritchard, with ARM1 Bottoms as crew member, at daybreak and located the downed B-17. He dropped a note asking about landing conditions. The pilot of the downed B-17, 1st LT Monteverde signaled Pritchard not to land because the site was surrounded by crevices. Pritchard found a clear spot about two miles distant and landed in the snow with wheels retracted. Using a broomstick to test the snow, Pritchard and Bottoms made their way on foot to the B-17.

They returned to the J2F with three B-17 crewmembers and after pushing it free, departed with two survivors for the Northland and landed after dark. Early the next morning Pritchard took-off again for another load. After landing the weather deteriorated rapidly and they left with only one B-17 crewmember. A heavy fog engulfed the entire area and Pritchard was unable to locate the Northland and crashed on the ice cap. The wreckage of the J2F was located by an aircraft four months later but the crew was never found.

LT Pritchard and ARM1 Bottoms were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses for their efforts.

LT Pritchard’s citation is below.

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For heroism while participating in aerial flights as pilot of a plane which rescued Army fliers stranded on the Greenland Ice Cap November 28-29, 1942.  After safely landing on the Ice Cap, he took aboard two of the injured men and, with superb airmanship, successfully took off for his ship, arriving safely.  The following day, he again volunteered to resume rescue operations for remaining Army fliers.  After getting one more on board, he started for his ship, but failed to arrive.[/fusion_tagline_box]

Winter set in and the crew of the B-17 was sustained by airdrops. LT Spencer used the other motorized sled in attempt to get three badly injured men out. The sled broke down on the way back and a base camp was set up about 6 miles from the downed B-17.  Lt. Bernard W. Dunlop USN, flying a PBY, made the first of three landings on the icecap on February 5 and got three men out taking them to BE-2.  On March 17 he again landed on the ice cap bringing a dogsled party to travel to the B-17 and return to the landing site with survivors. On 5 April he returned to pick up the dog sled party but had engine problems on take off which required repair.  The PBY departed with no survivors the next day with reduced power available in one of the two engines. The Dog sled team departed the site for Beach Head Station, Comanche Bay. The dog sled and team was picked up by ENS Henderson on April 18 and flown to BE2. On May 8 the Coast Guard party that had been searching for Bottoms and Pritchard were flown out of Comanche Bay for BE-2. Both PBYs returned to BW-1 on May 13.    

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LT B. W. Dunlop USN, landed on the ice cap to deliver a dogsled party to travel to B-17 – PN9E and get the remaining three survivors out.

The 230 foot Coast Guard Cutter Storis, designed to serve as a supply ship for Bluie bases, was commissioned on 30 September 1942. The ship was lightly armed, had sonar, a hull strengthened for ice operations and carried an aircraft.  In mid 1943 three of the new 180 foot Buoy tenders arrived. They were single screw and had icebreaker bows. They were used to install and maintain aids to navigation, supply duties and when required; convoy duty. The establishment of the airbases and Army installations in Greenland generated more marine traffic than had ever before been experienced. Prior to the Greenland Patrol the Danes had operated one light station and piles of rocks upon which kerosene lanterns were hung. Late in 1941 the Coast Guard began the implementation of a system of aids that would make the fjords and coastal waters tolerably safe for navigation. In the course of two years, in extremely primitive conditions, they set up range lights, shore lights, shore markers and radio beacons at more than 50 sites.

In autumn of 1944 the new ice breakers Eastwind and Southwind, specifically designed for arctic operations, arrived. They were armed with four 5-inch guns, twelve 40mm anti-aircraft guns six 20mm anti-aircraft guns, depth charges, hedgehogs, and carried an aircraft on board. 

Aircraft ferry operation plans for 1943 called for discontinuing the Bolero flights of fighter aircraft going to Europe. With convoy losses considerably reduced these aircraft and some twin engine bombers would again be transported by ship. During the Bolero operation, June 1942 to January 1943, 185 P-38s, 150 transports and 366 heavy bombers had been delivered to Great Britain over the northern route. Four engine bombers were to fly directly from Gander to Prestwick and two engine aircraft were scheduled for the northern route via Greenland. However, in practice many four engine aircraft also used the northern route. . Ferried aircraft in 1943 moved over the ferry routes with much greater safety. Experience had been gained; communications had improved; weather reporting and forecasting had improved; and on March 11 the Coast Guard’s Greenland LORAN station went on the air. The North Atlantic LORAN chain, the first of many throughout the war, vastly improved navigation capabilities of both surface and aircraft. The aircraft loss rate for 1943 was 1.14%.

USCG Cutter Storis

Coast Guard Cutter Storis with J2F-5 on board

The Greenland Patrol PBYs were organized into an all Coast Guard VP squadron in August of 1943. It is the only Coast Guard VP squadron to have been designated as such and was in reality an evolution. The development of VP 6 is treated as a separate Timeline narrative in order to provide a more complete and detailed history. RADM Smith had been appointed to flag rank in June of 1942 and in November of 1943 was given the command of all of Task Force 24 which included both Iceland and Greenland and surrounding waters. Coast Guard combat operations continued and as late as the end of 1944 units were still engaged in locating and destroying German weather stations and support operations.

The cutter Northland left dry-dock at the Boston Naval Yard at the end of May 1944, for the trip back north. The ice-blue-and –white camouflage, which proved to be very effective in the Greenland ice pack, had been painted on both the hull and superstructure. LTJG Ken Bilderback, his aviation crew, and a J2F-5 joined the ship in Casco, Maine. The initial destination, via Bluie West 1, was Reykjavik, Iceland where 20 Army Commandos were picked up for northeastern Greenland operations.

Many reconnaissance flights were made along the coast and to plot open leads through the ice. On one flight a German weather station

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J2F-5 being hoisted aboard the Northland, Ken Bilderback, pilot and Spike Wojicki radioman

was located near the Shannon Island, about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle and two miles off the Greenland Coast. The Army commandos checked out the station. The station was destroyed after finding that it had been abandoned earlier in the year. Later a German trawler, of 180 feet in length, was sighted in the ice floes about 20 miles southeast of Shannon Island. It was determined that it had been caught in the ice, burned out, and an attempt had been made to scuttle it. The German crew was not present having apparently been rescued.

Fog set in but after three days at anchor the Northland resumed patrol. Rounding the southeast point of Shannon Island a vessel, similar to the burned out German trawler, was spotted. The ship appeared to be headed for Dove Bay, about 75 miles north of Shannon Island, and the chase was on. The Northland was a short distance into the icepack when a strong concussion was felt and a geyser of ice and water flew skyward off the port quarter. This was followed by another blast a little farther astern.  Two torpedoes had been fired at the Northland which were initially thought to be mines as a submarine firing torpedoes in an ice pack had not been heard of. This changed the Northland’s tactics and the ice floes were used as cover as she pursued and gained on the trawler. After five hours the trawler came within maximum range of the forward 3-inch gun. No direct hits had purposely been made as it was desired to capture the ship undamaged. Three hours later, in open water, the Northland had caught the trawler and ordered it to surrender. The crew departed the trawler in lifeboats but had planted demolition charges which exploded and sank the ship.

The German crew was taken aboard and as the Northland turned eastward a conning tower of a submarine was spotted. Several shots were fired at the submarine, with no effect, as it fully submerged. A search began to find an open lead large enough for the J2F to take off in. Finding a minimal area the Duck was launched and searched for a little over an hour and a half without sighting the submarine. The following day another attempt was made and a little over an hour into the search a German submarine was sighted. The J2F circled and commenced an attack from the stern of the submarine. Two bombs were dropped; landing close aboard, but apparently caused little damage to the submerging submarine. It was felt that a shipboard type depth charge, set for 30 feet, would be more effective and a system was jury-rigged to allow the aircraft to carry and manually drop a Mk VI  depth charge. Aerial searches, weather permitting, continued through the next week without success. The cutter Eastwind made rendezvous a few days later and the German Prisoners were transferred.

LTJG Ken Bilderback received the following citation.

“LTJG Bilderback contributed materially to the outstanding successful summer operations of the Greenland patrol. Frequently flying as many as three daily missions under extremely hazardous conditions, LTJG Bilderback increased the effective patrol range of his ship through his own observations and through the transfer of vital stores to isolated patrols and outposts. His timely sighting of an armed enemy trawler resulted in its interception by his mother ship, the enemy’s subsequent destruction, and the resultant prevention of the enemy weather station.”

The patrol was continued until the first week of October. By then it was semi-darkness most of the day. High wind, sleet, snow, and fog were daily affairs. In mid October the Northland accompanied by the cutter Storis arrived at Reykjavík and the J2F was put ashore.

The final campaign against the weather stations marked the end of American actions against the Germans in Greenland.   

2017-05-23T16:54:18+00:00